This film is held by the BFI (ID: 14895).


A short history of the island is followed by views of the countryside and people in town and village.

Credits. Map of Cyprus with major towns and cities highlighted. Panned shot from waves lapping on a beach to the temple of Aphrodite. Stavrovouni Monastery. The ruins of Amathus. Panned shot of empty landscapes. 'Cyprus is like a ring which has passed hand to hand of changing Empires: Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Venetian, Ottoman - she's been worn by them all'. Commentary outlines the arrival of the British in 1878 and that Cyprus is now an island of the British Commonwealth. A boy leading a donkey towards Nikosia. Cypriots: 'for the most part they are a Greek-speaking people, but there are many Turks also'. Shots showing the ethnic and religious diversity of Nikosia. An anonymous Cypriot village: 'this is a village much like any other in the world, but you will find Cyprus here'. A family cultivating the fields: the 'unchanging tradition of husbandry'. The soil of Cyprus, on which 'the furrows of exhaustion have begun to appear'. Goats eating everything in their path. A goatherd, Vassos, shown sleeping under a tree while his plague-carrying goats destroy the village harvest. A village farmer, Nikos, trying to disperse the goats. A village court, settling the ensuing dispute between Vassos and Nikos: goats are outlawed from the village area; an angry Vassos takes his herd to the forest. The forests of Cyprus, 'less mighty than they had been'.

Vassos arrives at a 'rough, wild' village in the forest. A knife-dance in the village. Goats cleared from the forest in order to protect the trees. Alternative work provided for the goatherds, but some 'disgruntled' men commit arson. Vassos shown lighting a fire in the forest; he is caught by wardens and sent to gaol. Dry land in a lowland village suffering from 'an agony of thirst'. A man from the 'Water Supply and Irrigation Department' shows plans for an irrigation project to some villagers. The villagers and the government co-finance the scheme. Locals, overseen by authority figures, build the irrigation system. Vassos is set free and is allowed to farm in the village. The produce of Cyprus: wheat, barley, lemons, oranges, almonds, olive oil, timber and fuel, wine and spirits, tobacco and cigarettes, silk cocoons. Easter celebrations; Vassos dances while Nikos and his family laugh and applaud. Waves lapping on a beach. Ends.



Cyprus is an Island is a black and white documentary shot on location in 1946. Greenpark Productions, the company behind the film, was founded in 1938 by Walter Greenwood, author of Love on the Dole, along with his accountant Mr Park. The company specialised in corporate and government films, work that it continued for nearly 50 years. The film was directed by Ralph Keene and scripted by the author and poet Laurie Lee. The latter’s involvement came about for several reasons. One was the literary bias of Greenpark Productions (Dylan Thomas and H E Bates had also worked for the company), another was that Lee had previous knowledge of the island, and finally there was a chance encounter with Keene in a British pub (Lee, 1947, 1).

Cyprus is an Island was originally intended for a British audience and was premiered in 1946 at the Curzon Cinema in London. The film was subsequently exhibited at international film festivals in France and Czechoslovakia. Writing for the Monthly Film Bulletin, the Education Panel Viewing Committee stated that ‘It was felt that it could, with advantage, be cut so that one or two of the topics presented in the film would be more fully emphasised’ (MFB, November 1947, 167). This was subsequently achieved: a silent film Farmer and Goatherd (1950) was edited from the footage and recommended as a suitable film for geography students aged nine to eleven (GJ, January-March 1950, 124).

Lee and Keene detailed their experiences of making the documentary in their book, We Made a Film in Cyprus. The film was originally proposed by the Governor of Cyprus and later received the backing of the Colonial Office and the Ministry of Information. The brief for Keene and Lee was to ‘find a film about a people as yet unfilmed. A people of whom there was a great deal to say, but of whom a great deal must be left unsaid. [...] We had to make a film about an island which was a crown colony, and we had to show some of the benefits which Colonial Government bestows’ (Lee, 1947, 1-2).

On arriving in Cyprus Lee found himself instructed in ‘Trade, the agrarian policy, reafforestation, industries, village crafts, the local problems of this and that, lists of localities, sheafs of statistics, Blue Books and reports by the dozen’ (Lee, 1947, 1-2). His script was further influenced by situations he encountered on a tour of the island: the campaigning work of village councils, free-ranging goats which were destroying the trees in the forest, the policies of the forestry department. In their maintenance of the forest this department had deprived goatherds of grazing land. This had led to vengeful arson attacks and also to the depopulation of forest villages. Lee notes that ‘The Government was planning to move all the families to a lowland site on the western coast, where they would be given fields and taught to farm. Such a thing had not happened in Cyprus before, and it would be a tricky venture’ (Lee, 1947, 37).

Administered by the British since 1878 and held as a colony since 1925, Cyprus was subject to separate calls for union with the homelands of both its Greek majority and its Turkish minority. The island suffered from a vacillating British policy during World War II. By late 1940 Greece and Britain were the only countries in Europe resisting fascism and suggestions were made by several officials, including Sir Michael Palairet, the British Minister in Athens, that Cyprus be ceded to Greece to help cement Anglo-Greek solidarity. Members of the Foreign Office overruled the idea in the hope that evidence of their resistance would encourage a pro-British policy in Turkey, a country which nevertheless remained neutral throughout the war. Following the German capture of Athens the exiled Greek government requested that they be stationed in Cyprus. The British government declined, allocating the Greek government to Cairo instead. They did, however, permit the raising of the Greek flag in Cyprus and encouraged Cypriots to  ‘Fight for Greece and freedom’ having earlier discouraged their enlistment in the Greek army. A final request for enosis (‘union’) with Cyrpus, made by the Greek Regent Archbishop Damaskinos in August 1945, was also rejected. Christopher Hitchens has argued that the new Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin ‘did not feel confident enough to force it through the cabinet’ (Hitchens, 1984, 37).



Cyprus is an Island falls into three distinct parts. The opening section of the film has the dual function of outlining the island’s history while also highlighting the difference between the British Empire and those who have ruled Cyprus before. As the camera pans slowly over predominantly desolate scenes, the commentator states, ‘Cyprus is like a ring which has passed hand to hand of changing Empires: Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Venetian, Ottoman – she’s been worn by them all’. As each major epoch is recalled we hear variations on the refrain ‘But of the people, at that time, we know nothing’. This absence is symbolised by the recurring motif of an empty pair of peasant’s shoes.

British rule is different. The chronological narrative reaches the point where ‘Cyprus, now, is an island of the British Commonwealth and these are her people’. At the word ‘Commonwealth’ the camera films more verdant plains, at the word ‘people’ the empty shoes are filled. They are worn by a young boy, who is leading a donkey towards Nicosia. Over scenes of the capital the narrative now informs us of the rich cultural mix of the island. Keene writes that here the local authorities requested ‘Crowded streets . . . teeming markets . . . busy thoroughfares’. However, it was June and the city was deserted. The team compensated with ‘a liberal use of “insert” shots of posters, street signs and placards’ (Keene, 1947, 75).

The second and major section of the film fictionalises scenes that Lee encountered during his tour of the island. In this semi-comic parable Vassos, an anarchist goatherd, comes up short against Nikos, an organized local farmer who draws upon village rule to ban free-ranging goats from the locality. Vassos goes on to a wild career of arson in the forest and eventual imprisonment. During these forest scenes the policy of removing goats to protect saplings and of relocating village communities is described in a positive manner. The narrative states that these changes are necessary because ‘the forest was the wealth of the whole community and the trees must be protected’. The government is carrying out this measure by ‘patient persuasion’.

The scenes of village farming illustrate the ‘old, unchanging tradition of husbandry’. Although depicted in an Arcadian manner the narrative talks about the problems of farming the land. It is described as being ‘weary’, ‘difficult’ and in an ‘agony of thirst’. That is, ‘until there came an answer’. It is at this point that we first witness the British presence on the island. A ‘Water and Irrigation Dept.’ van is shown and we see an official proposing a scheme to the locals. Co-operation in the construction of the dam is stressed. The locals agree to raise some of the money and to provide labour; the government will finance the remainder and monitor the scheme.

The results lead us towards the final and most overtly propagandistic section of the film. The commentary declares that ‘after centuries of poverty and decay a new plan is at work to build up the fertility of the island’. In contrast with the slowly panned sequences of the opening section here we have a brisk montage featuring images of new industry and its resultant abundance. The filmmakers found this section unsatisfactory, but it was imposed upon them by their government backers.  Keene notes that ‘we felt it had no place in an otherwise simply agricultural story. But the colonial authorities insisted. It is a pity these people can never realize that the injection of a few shots of garden suburbs, ferro-concrete building and isolated factories, add nothing to the interest or effectiveness of a film of this sort’ (Keene, 1947, 72).

Although generally warmly received, the compromised nature of the film drew some criticism in reviews. The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that ‘The latter part is quite out of place’ (MFB, March 1946, 47). The film was also criticised for ‘evading some of the important political issues which have concerned the Cypriots in recent years’ (DNL, 1946/47, 30). While on his tour of the island Lee had been told about the rape of a village girl by soldiers, and another local had informed him that ‘Cyprus did not belong to Britain, no; it was an old ship boarded by pirates, plundered, and anchored into poverty’ (Lee, 1947, 38, 55). Lee was aware, however, that in a film of this nature ‘a great deal must be left unsaid’ (Lee, 1947, 1).

Richard Osborne (March 2009)


Works Cited

Hitchens, Christopher, Cyprus (London: Quartet Books, 1984).

Keene, Ralph, ‘Filming the Script’, in Laurie Lee and Ralph Keene, We Made a Film in Cyprus (London, New York, Toronto: Longmans Green and Co., 1947), 58-76.

Lee, Laurie, ‘Scripting the Film’, in Laurie Lee and Ralph Keene, We Made a Film in Cyprus (London, New York, Toronto: Longmans Green and Co., 1947), 1-57.

Lee, Laurie, and Ralph Keene, We Made a Film in Cyprus (London, New York, Toronto: Longmans Green and Co., 1947).

Monthly Film Bulletin, 13/147 (March 1946), 47.

Monthly Film Bulletin, 14/167 (November 1947), 165.

 ‘Two Films for the Theatres’, Documentary News Letter, 6/52 (1946/47), 30.

‘The Society’s News’, The Geographical Journal, 115/1-3 (Jan-March 1950), 124-25.




Technical Data

Running Time:
34 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
3053 ft

Production Credits

KEENE, Ralph
KEENE, Ralph
Ministry of Information
Author of the Original Work
LEE, Laurie
Commentary Writer
LEE, Laurie
Music Director
DYALL, Valentine
STILL, George
Production Company
Film Producers Guild
Production Company
Greenpark Productions





Production Organisations